In early 1947, a young woman's murder rocked Los Angeles, California. Her name was Elizabeth Short, but newspapers called her “The Black Dahlia”, with photos of her mutilated corpse covering their front pages. In the years since, a good number of fictional tales have been crafted around the Black Dahlia case, but never one you can play. Until now, that is.
L.A. Noire is a film-noire style detective videogame developed by Team Bondi and published by Rockstar Games. The game tells the story of Cole Phelps (played by Mad Men's Aaron Staton), an up and coming LAPD officer as he tracks down the Black Dahlia murderer. In addition to an open-world recreation of 1947 Los Angeles, L.A. Noire utilizes a revolutionary new motion capture technique that recreates fully realistic facial acting in game. More than just window-dressing, the developers say that this technology will be used to create a lie-detection mechanic never before seen in a videogame.
Paste spoke to Team Bondi head Brendan McNamara about the technology, the design, and the story behind one of 2011's most interesting-looking games.
Paste: How, if at all, will the game train players in how to read faces and detect lies?
McNamara: We’re using some groundbreaking facial animation technology in L.A. Noire called MotionScan. It is much different than traditional voice-over work in video games where you have a VO (voice-over) actor in a dark room reading through their lines. With MotionScan, we’re able to capture an actor’s entire performance and digitally recreate it in-game. The result is incredibly life-life and exudes unparalleled levels of emotion and nuance. Players can now pick out the tiniest of details - furrowed brows, curled lips, flared nostrils, etc. - to analyze and determine whether or not they’re being lied to. There isn’t a formal tutorial on how to pick out when a person is lying, because everyone lies a little differently. Instead we ask that players pay attention to the behaviors of their interviewee, use their skills of intuition and deduction, and, finally, to trust their instincts.
If a player simply sucks at interrogation, how forgiving will the game be?
McNamara: We recognize that L.A. Noire will draw all types of players with various levels of experience and skills. The goal wasn’t to make a punishingly difficult experience for newcomers, or a game that felt too easy for the hardcore. Proficiency in interrogations can reward the player in a number of ways: a new clue may surface, an expedited path to the end of the case may present itself, perhaps a side story of a character unfolds. We want to reward and encourage players to strive for the truth in every interrogation, but we understand that, sometimes, you just get it wrong. And that’s okay. Players will never fail a case or their progress impeded for performing dismally in an interrogation. They may just have a longer road to travel to the truth. We also recognise that women appear to be much better at reading lies than men.
Will some crimes simply be unsolvable if you can’t break the suspect or get a confession?
McNamara: The main thrust of the narrative dictates that Phelps solves cases and moves through the ranks of the LAPD. Every case has their own fail conditions, of course, but as I mentioned earlier, we don’t want a player’s inability to correctly analyze suspects to prevent them from proceeding on in the case. Obviously you can fail because a game by its nature is a contest. One of the nice things about the game is that many of the cases have alternative routes throughout that different players will experience differently.
Will there be some cases that can be solved exclusively without violence and vice versa?
McNamara: The level of action varies greatly from case to case. Many cases are solvable without the need for violence. For example, instead of pulling out his gun and shooting a fleeing suspect, Phelps can fire a warning shot that stops the person in their tracks. Other times, Phelps has little choice but to roll up his sleeves and pursue justice using deadly force. It becomes a balancing act between introducing players to a radically different type of gameplay and also maintaining a level of comfort and familiarity.